The old cliché is true: bombing while performing comedy is utter hell. And every comic, no matter how unique, talented or plain funny, has bombed more than a few times. Part of the process. Part of the scene. Inescapable. I've seen top flight comics die in front of silent, cynical crowds, their acts fast becoming feverish attempts to keep the plane from hitting the control tower. And, yes, I've died a thousand deaths onstage as well, both singly and with a group, the only salvation being the scattered laughter from the other comics at the back of the room. At that point, you're essentially playing to the band. In fact, some of my bombing experiences won over comics who liked my material despite what the audience thought, and offered to pay for it. So some silver was yanked from those dark, swirling clouds.
After watching Michael Richards' meltdown from last Friday night, however, I don't see how he gets anything back. It's one of the saddest and most perplexing plummets I think I've ever seen. I'm sure most of you have seen it, but if not, here it is:
Dealing with hecklers is tricky, and few can deftly pull it off without breaking stride. Sam Kinison was especially brutal on hecklers, but his aggression worked since he had a very aggressive act, making his retorts seamless. Bill Hicks would loudly question the intellectual capacity of hecklers, telling them that perhaps they were at the wrong gig and that they might be more comfortable at a Billy Ray Cyrus concert. For lesser talents, there are the old stand-bys -- "Hey, I don't knock the dick out of your mouth when you're working" being a club favorite. But Richards was in a different place altogether, and it's frankly shocking to see him unravel so easily and crudely in front of a couple of guys talking shit. You can see in mid-rant, Richards tries to swing his racist yelling back to some kind of free-form commentary on words that wound and the hatred that exists in us all. But by that point it was too late -- you can't rebound from shouting about hanging niggers in trees by asking the rest of the audience if they are shocked. Of course they're shocked. Even if there was some savage satirical point being made about racism, a white guy using those words in that manner makes it impossible to be understood.
But Richards wasn't channeling Lenny Bruce. He saw two black men interrupting his act, and he flipped out. If they were Asian or Latino, I'm guessing that gook and spic would've been uttered instead. Richards wanted to stab those guys right in their throats, so he used the most jagged tool nearest him. And it worked. He did hurt them. Decidedly so. But by doing this, he also hurt what's left of his career, as well as his comic legacy. Which is really a shame, for Richards has shown himself to be a first-rate physical comic actor, a descendant of Buster Keaton, Jerry Lewis and Jacque Tati. Kramer was the acme of his craft, seen and appreciated by millions. But as I've shown in several clips here, Richards also did fine work on "Fridays", which set the stage for his emergence on "Seinfeld". Now, all of that is trashed, at least for the foreseeable future.
It's clear that Richards appreciates the deep hole he's in. His attempt to apologize last night on Letterman appeared genuine but confused, as if while he was explaining himself, he further realized just how fucked he currently is. Deer in the headlights barely covers it. See if you agree:
This morning's talk radio reaction was pretty much unified in overall disgust, but, obviously, for different reasons. On Laura Ingraham's show, one caller chastised Letterman for being too soft on Richards, saying that if Richards were a conservative Republican, he would've been crucified. Ingraham instantly agreed, citing the woes suffered by Trent Lott and George Allen. While it's rather rich for Ingraham to complain about "double standards" when it comes to offensive speech, given her history of queer-baiting and making light of US-armed death squads killing nuns and priests, lumping Richards in with Lott and Allen is essentially a non sequitur. To my knowledge, Richards has no history of making racist remarks or opining about "inferior" breeds. Lott and Allen do. Lott and Allen are also politicians who supposedly serve the public. Richards is a comic actor. Slime Richards all you want, but there is simply no comparison between him and those poor, misunderstood Dixiecrats.
On Michael Eric Dyson's show, audience anger was very evident, and many of the callers I heard were not in a forgiving mood. Dyson himself asked if some kind of action be taken against Richards, though he didn't specify what that would be. Richards isn't on any show, and I seriously doubt he will be anytime soon. I suppose one could boycott "Seinfeld" reruns or not buy or rent the DVDs, but that would be the extent of it. Richards is an individual, not a corporation. If he has any PR savvy or sense of honest guilt, he'll attempt to make amends. But that's on him, not outraged "Seinfeld" fans.
Dyson also wondered what Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle thought of Richards' outburst. That's an interesting notion, and I'd love to hear what Rock and Chappelle might have to say. I suspect that while they would condemn Richards' language, as comedians who play on the edge themselves, they may give Richards some slack. It's a different world on stage, especially against a hostile crowd. Anything can happen to someone intensely free associating, as Richards was. And naturally this includes exposure of one's hidden bile, rage and hatred. Tough to edit that in real time, which is why stand-up remains the hardest and perhaps the most dangerous comedy format. If you doubt this, go on stage and give it a whirl, say around 1:30 AM on a Friday in front of scattered, heckling drunks. Or failing that, ask Michael Richards.